Two of the usual suspects Derren Brown and Richard Dawkins have been in the UK news recently, Brown for his new TV show, and Dawkins due to his support for libel law reform.
‘Mentalist’, anti-psychic and all-round showman Brown has a new series that apparently has been under development ‘for over a year’ and was promising all sorts of exciting new tricks. Two shows in and the results have been less than impressive.
For his first heavily hyped episode Brown promised to predict the national lottery numbers on live TV. Unfortunately his definition of ‘predicting’ and mine seem to differ somewhat. Mine involves revealing the numbers before seeing the draw, whereas his involved picking some unseen numbers, muttering something about the BBC not allowing him to reveal them, and then revealing them after the draw, at which point they were shown to be correct to the surprise of absolutely no-one. Not only was this all a bit of a swizz, but Brown’s follow-up programme in which he promised to reveal how he had done it was a damp squib. Disappointingly, given his previously laudable anti-mumbo jumbo leanings, he chose to present a couple of scenarios to explain himself and let the viewers choose. Option one was the completely ludicrous suggestion that a group of volunteers had somehow used ‘automatic writing’ to average out the numbers using a theory called ‘the wisdom of crowds’. Total hogwash and pretty close to invoking psychic ability in my book. Option two was that he had somehow rigged the lottery draw – more believable but also pretty much out of the question. General consensus seems to point to some sort of split-screen trick in which the initial balls were switched out with the correct numbers after the draw.
The second show was even worse. Brown claimed that he would, gasp, ‘control the nation’ by means of a mysterious subliminal film. Basically it was nothing more than your bog standard stage hypnotist where some people humour the entertainer by eating an onion or whatever, except in this case all they had to do was to pretend not to be able to get out of their chairs. Some viewers played the game by phoning in to report they were stuck, until released by a special ‘relaxing’ blue film segment shown by Brown.
For all his showman bluster I’m afraid this series just hasn’t done it for Brown so far – his stunts are just too easy to rig for a TV audience (the possibility of multiple takes etc) and waffle about mysterious theories and automatic writing are a definite step in the wrong direction. However he still portrays himself as an illusionist rather than a psychic, so perhaps he’ll pull something a bit more interesting out of the bag later.
Dawkins, meanwhile, has been campaigning to change the English libel laws which he says are biased towards the plaintiff. He has the support of England’s third party the Liberal Democrats (unfortunately numerically pretty much the equivalent of having the staunch support of ACT). Dawkins was quoted as saying that due to the current state of the law, it was very hard to publicly criticise homoeopaths and the like for fear of being sued (although Ben Goldacre seems to have done a pretty good job in his great book ‘Bad Science’). Another doctor, Simon Singh is currently fighting a case where he is being sued for suggesting chiropractors might be not quite as sincere as they make out. This is seen as a very important case in determining how far scientists and others can go in their criticism. Although any changes in the law are a long way off, any groundswell of support or general coverage of the issue is most welcome.